Forget ‘La La Land’ – Give Me Something to Sing About

❉ Why Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s 2001 masterpiece is the greatest screen musical of the 21st Century so far.

Once More With Feeling really demonstrates what musicals can be: an empathetic expression of love, loss, futility, intimacy, joy, alienation, fear, devotion and deep, crushing hopelessness.

La La Land is about to dominate the 89th Academy Awards and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. Damien Chazelle’s “love letter” to Hollywood musicals is set to sweep the board. Its overwhelming success seems to be entirely down to the natural charm of a leading lady who blinks and boggles her way through 128 minutes to make up for her lack of vocal ability whilst she inexplicably falls for a delusional, mansplaining, jazz bore. Frankly, they deserve each other. Praise will continue to be heaped on the lazy pastiche of the dream sequence from An American in Paris that was so artlessly shoehorned into an emotionally barren rehash of the ending from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. So blinded by the excessive use of primary colours the critics couldn’t see how much contempt Chazelle really has for us all. This love letter is full of empty platitudes and was written by a sociopath.

There are plenty of pieces on the internet detailing La La Land’s failings, the world doesn’t really need another one. Instead this is about the greatest screen musical of the 21st Century (to date). Despite stiff competition from the likes of 8 Women, the superlative Enchanted, Dancer in the Dark and, don’t fight me on this, Josie & the Pussycats the top spot can’t really go to anything other than Once More With Feeling. Fifty glorious minutes that elevated the patchy sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and inspired a subsequent trend for off-model musical episodes from numerous shows in the early 2000’s. Bold, innovative and really very good indeed there’s so much right about this that La La Land gets so wrong.

Whilst the unmemorable numbers in La La Land tend to be there to fill gaps between dialogue and can generally be reduced to expository “I am doing a thing, this is the thing I am doing. Now I’m doing a thing with you. I’m not doing the thing with you anymore. What are these things called emotions someone once mentioned in passing?”, Once More With Feeling really demonstrates what musicals can be: an empathetic expression of love, loss, futility, intimacy, joy, alienation, fear, devotion and deep, crushing hopelessness.

The opening number, Going Through the Motions, delivers a sense of pathos and, rather than referencing for references sake, displays genuine respect and affection for the song’s inspiration; Part of Your World from Disney’s The Little Mermaid. It’s taken 15 years and more viewings than I should probably admit to to spot that the first theory in I’ve Got a Theory is ultimately correct, but it might be because Anya’s bunny-centric solo has such a colossal comic impact that it’s hard not to get distracted. Yes, there are bum notes, but every musical has to have at least one duff number, and James Marsters valiantly takes that bullet with Rest in Peace. But who cares when The Parking Ticket and The Mustard deliver in under 30 seconds more contextual world building than the full, 12,000 year long opening sequence of La La Land? A sequence that has been repeatedly slammed for constituting the only racial diversity in an otherwise whitewashed, heteronormative depiction of contemporary Los Angeles. Meanwhile, back in 2001, this jam packed episode somehow manages to find space for Willow and Tara’s arc which, at a time when most same sex relationships on TV were facile stereotypes, mercifully treated lesbians like normal people.

Whilst Willow and Tara’s relationship is in jeopardy I’ll Never Tell is, by contrast, an astonishingly relatable portrayal of the day-to-day frustrations and neuroses that come from being in a stable, loving relationship. It is delivered with such warmth and self-awareness that anyone who has ever felt insecure with or just infuriated by their partner can’t help but empathise. Emma Caulfield and Nicholas Brendon might not have a natural flair for song and dance but the number is held up by a firm foundation of innuendo and supplemented by their well established comedy chops and undeniable chemistry, both of which La La Land’s protagonists desperately lack.

Really, though, it all comes down to Give Me Something to Sing About, and this is where Joss Whedon exploits the genre so perfectly. Buffy’s audience, both the viewer at home and her Scooby gang who look on aghast are offered profound insight into her emotional state, the impact of the events of Season Five and her resentment at being torn from heaven and dragged back to Earth. In four minutes Whedon and his ensemble achieve the kind of exposition and character development that would traditionally take at least half a dozen hour-long episodes. The gut wrenching despair of the bridge alone is probably the best performance of Sarah Michelle Gellar’s career. It’s a masterpiece and indisputably the most important episode of Season Six, if not the entire series.

If you haven’t seen La La Land yet my advice to you is to forego two hours of being beaten over the head with the foetid and desecrated corpse of Vincente Minnelli and just watch Once More With Feeling three times instead.

 Follow Beth Ward on Twitter: @BetsyChevron

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